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How 2 franchise-altering trades could spark a new Sabres rebuild

Bill Wippert / National Hockey League / Getty

The Buffalo Sabres have hit rock bottom. The team was supposed to contend this year after the additions of Taylor Hall and Eric Staal, but sits dead last in the standings.

General manager Kevyn Adams has vowed to make changes, calling the team's struggles "unacceptable."

How far Adams goes to shake up the roster remains to be seen. Hall, Staal, and Brandon Montour are all pending UFAs and it's seemingly a foregone conclusion the trio is gone by the April 12 trade deadline. If Adams fails to move them, the Sabres will miss out on valuable returning assets; re-signing any of those three players is highly unlikely.

And then there's Jack Eichel. Trading him is not necessarily the best course of action, but it's definitely in the cards if Adams is intent on starting a new rebuild. Remember, Adams was just promoted to GM this past offseason, he may want to build this team from the ground up.

Before we explore two potential franchise-altering trades the Sabres should consider, there's an important piece of business Buffalo needs to address.

Management shake-up

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The Sabres should hire a president of hockey operations. It may seem unlikely since it hasn't happened to this point, but it would be highly beneficial to have an accomplished executive oversee Adams, given that his front-office experience is fairly limited.

Ideally, the hire would have a track record of NHL success - perhaps Dean Lombardi, for example. Finding a top hockey executive by the offseason should be a priority for owners Terry and Kim Pegula.

Not only would the president of hockey operations provide another voice in any Eichel trade negotiations, but the potential hire would help Buffalo find its next head coach. It's clear Ralph Krueger's message is not getting through. The Sabres need to replace him in the offseason.

Hurricane Hall

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There are a number of potential suitors for Hall. The Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, and Boston Bruins all make sense. But the Carolina Hurricanes may be the most intriguing option.

This year could be Carolina's best chance to win a Stanley Cup. Andrei Svechnikov's entry-level deal expires after this season and Dougie Hamilton is a pending UFA. Both players are due for hefty raises.

Carolina has some cap space to burn this season, though. It makes sense for them to go all-in.

F Taylor Hall* F Warren Foegele
F Eric Staal* F Morgan Geekie
D Brandon Montour* F Jack Drury
D Jake Gardiner
2021 2nd-rounder

*Buffalo retains 50% salary

There are a couple caveats to this deal. Staal has a 10-team no-trade list, but it's hard to imagine the Canes are on there. An opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds to try and win another Stanley Cup - this time alongside his brother, Jordan - would be appealing.

Gardiner also has a seven-team no-trade list. Buffalo is not the most desirable market, so it's possible the Sabres are on there. If that's the case, it would be hard to make this deal work from a cap perspective. He's signed through 2022-23 at $4.05 million per season. Carolina has tried to move him in the past - as recently as this offseason - to no avail.

For Sabres fans, this deal may look a tad underwhelming considering the haul the New Jersey Devils received for Hall last season. There are a few important factors to consider here. The Arizona Coyotes acquired him well before the deadline, Hall is in the midst of his worst season, and this year is a buyer's market - partially due to the flat cap.

However, Foegele - an RFA after this season - is a high-floor, top-nine forward at just 24 years old. Geekie, a 22-year-old center, has dominated the AHL and appears to be NHL ready. Drury, the son of Sabres legend Chris, was a 2018 second-round selection. Factoring in the draft pick, that's a solid return for three pending UFAs.

Eichel to the Big Apple

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Firstly, an Eichel trade would have to wait until the summer. Massive deals like this with plenty of money moving around are too difficult to pull off during the season.

Secondly, the Sabres don't need to trade Eichel since he's locked up through 2025-26 at $10 million per season. So if they're going to deal their captain, it would take an offer they can't refuse.

The Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers would reportedly be the front-runners to land the star center, but we've opted to go with the latter, since the Blueshirts are seemingly further along in their rebuild. New York has plenty of young talent required to land Eichel, and their farm system would remain strong even after this proposed trade.

F Jack Eichel F Kaapo Kakko
F Vitali Kravtsov
F Ryan Strome
D Nils Lundqvist
2021 1st-rounder*
2022 2nd-rounder

*Buffalo receives New York's 2022 first-rounder if trade occurs after draft, or if pick is in the top five

It's possible the Rangers aren't interested in paying a price this steep, but Eichel's a superstar and still only 24 years old. Plus, it's hard to imagine Buffalo parting with its franchise player for much less. New York also gets this done without subtracting much from its current roster.

Buffalo's haul includes a lot of high-end talent. Kakko has been a disappointment early on in his NHL career, collecting 27 points in his first 83 games. However, there's been some strong underlying improvements this season, showing that the 2019 second overall pick still has loads of potential.

Kravtsov and Lundqvist are not far behind. They were two of New York's three first-round picks in the 2018 draft. Kravtsov - a big, goal-scoring winger - was taken eighth overall. Lundqvist - a right-handed offensive defenseman - was chosen 28th overall.

In this scenario, the Rangers hold on to Alexis Lafreniere - who has more value than Kakko. And they manage to keep Filip Chytil and K'Andre Miller - who are arguably more important to the club's future than Kravtsov and Lundqvist.

Strome, who's signed through 2021-22 at $5.35 million per season, is included for cap reasons. But he's no slouch, as he's piled up 18 points in 24 games this season. He could be used as future trade bait for Buffalo, too.

Buffalo's next step

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There's still a lot that could happen in Buffalo's 2021 offseason if this trade goes through. They could immediately flip Strome before he ever suits up as a Sabre. They could also trade defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (a 2022 UFA) and Sam Reinhart (2021 RFA, eligible 2022 UFA).

But for the sake of this exercise, we're including that trio in a 2021-22 roster projection. All three could still be moved ahead of the 2022 deadline.

With ample cap space, the Sabres re-signed UFAs Jake McCabe (potentially the next captain) and Linus Ullmark. We're also predicting Buffalo loses Colin Miller in the expansion draft.

Victor Olofsson Dylan Cozens Sam Reinhart
Jeff Skinner Ryan Strome Kaapo Kakko
Warren Foegele Casey Mittelstadt Vitali Kravtsov
Zemgus Girgensons Morgan Geekie Tage Thompson
Cody Eakin Kyle Okposo
Jake McCabe Rasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus Dahlin Henri Jokiharju
Jake Gardiner Nils Lundqvist
Will Borgen
Linus Ullmark
Jonas Johansson

This team is obviously lacking the high-end talent to compete, but it's a much younger squad with more depth.

Plus, the Sabres will likely have a top-five pick in the 2021 draft, and that player should be ready to suit up within a year or so. Buffalo will also have Drury, Jack Quinn, John-Jason Peterka, and other prospects ready to come through the system.

An Eichel trade would obviously be devastating for Sabres fans, but if management can hit a home run on the return and properly support that young core, Buffalo could finally begin its journey out from rock bottom.

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